Coastal First Nation’s Clean Energy Conversion Efforts Ahead of the Curve in BC – Vancouver Island Free Daily

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By Rochelle Baker, reporter for the Local Journalism Initiative

A remote coastal First Nation has weaned a third of its homes off fossil fuels, leaving communities in the rest of British Columbia only aspiring.

To fuel the clean energy transition, the Heiltsuk Nation has committed an additional $5 million to equip an additional 250 homes in Bella Bella with energy-efficient heat pumps over the next year. Once there, 90 percent of the community’s homes will have dramatically reduced their carbon footprint.

“I’m really happy and excited,” said Leona Humchitt, Haiɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) tribal councilor and climate change team coordinator.

“Some of our community members haven’t even had Heat so to be able to bridge that gap is tremendous, especially for our elders.”

The heat pumps, which run on hydroelectric power and filter out pollutants, are already reducing energy use, emissions and bills while improving air quality and health in the community’s homes, Humchitt said.

The heat pump project aims to provide the Haiɫzaqv with healthy homes and stoves, and to fight fuel poverty as part of the community’s new clean energy plan.

The nation has developed its action plan titled Protecting our World or H̓ikila qṇts n̓ala’ax̌v and the heat pump project is a core initiative.

The first 154 homes have already replaced diesel stoves or other inadequate heating systems with central air source heat pumps as a result of a partnership with Ecotrust Canada that began in 2018, Humchitt said.

The Heiltsuk are ahead of the curve in a province where just 10 percent of BC homes rely on heat pumps, which are far greener than natural gas, other fossil fuels and other electric heating systems.

Despite heat pumps heating and cooling a home while producing the lowest emissions, the number of homes heating with natural gas has increased by four percent since 2017, according to a BC Hydro report.

More than half of the households in the province are dependent on natural gas, and in the case of single-family houses it is even two-thirds.

But in Bella Bella, many homes rely on dirty diesel to heat their homes, which is shipped to remote communities and poses an additional environmental risk should a spill occur.

Of the 1.9 million liters of fossil fuels that the community consumes each year, 54 percent is used to heat homes, according to the Haiɫzaqv Municipality Energy Plan.

Converting just one home from an oil stove to a heat pump avoids five tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually. In total, the new heat pumps in the municipality save 770 tons of greenhouse gases every year.

And typically, heating and electric bills in Bella Bella homes — which are often home to multigenerational families — are high, averaging $3,600 a year. But switching to heat pumps has reduced average household energy expenditure by $1,500 per year.

An early analysis of the community’s energy use showed that Bella Bella homes use twice the provincial average, Humchitt said, largely because many residences built under colonial policy and neglected are energy inefficient, overcrowded and unsuitable for the climate .

A key step in increasing profits from the heat pump project will be to continue conducting energy audits of individual homes to determine what type of retrofits, shallow or deep, they need, she said.

“Very poor quality materials were used to build the houses,” Humchitt said.

“We need to do the work now to make sure we know which houses require the most work.”

Haiɫzaqv’s climate protection team and tribal housing department will continue to work with Ecotrust — a charity that works with rural, remote Indigenous communities to tackle fuel poverty — on community retrofit plans and training local energy advisors, she said.

The success of the Bella Bella heat pump project mirrors that of a Skidegate Band Council initiative in 2016 that fitted nearly all of the 350 homes in the community of Haida Gwaii with the energy-efficient system, said Graham Anderson, director of Ecotrust’s Community Energy Initiative.

Heat pumps are proving to be one of the most effective and least complex methods of reducing heating bills for homes with high energy bills in BC, he said.

“Both communities are facing exorbitantly high heating bills,” Anderson said. “Our work has really focused on situations where the costs are really challenging for households and on tackling them and making ends meet.”

According to a report by Ecotrust, rural, remote and indigenous communities often face energy costs that are up to three times the Canadian household average.

Fuel poverty is generally understood to mean when a low-income household spends twice or more than the average household on basic necessities such as heating, lighting or cooking.

In BC, the median household spends about 3 percent of total income on energy, while the province’s energy poverty line is 6 percent or more. As a result, 15 percent of BC households experience fuel poverty – 17,000 of which are Indigenous households.

Fuel poverty disproportionately affects rural communities and the health and well-being of families, and increases the risk of asthma or mold-related illnesses caused by living in cold, poorly ventilated homes, the report said.

A recipient of a heat pump told the Heiltsuk climate protection team that she no longer had to struggle with the choice between food or warmth for her family.

A factor in the success of the Haiɫzaqv heat pump project was the clear vision and sustained commitment of the climate protection team and leadership, Anderson said.

“They lead the community’s energy plan, align their work with the community’s vision and intent, and follow this project for many years.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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